The blank page, the blinking cursor, the brand-new plan book, the new school year – these are things that haunt us: the writers, the teachers, and worse, the teachers of writing. I spent twenty years teaching young people the craft of writing well, and for quite some time I approached each new school year wondering how to capture their attention and help them to find a reason to write and a desire to write well.
I believed that becoming a good writer needed to start with two pre-writing requirements: reading good writing and thinking interesting thoughts. One who writes must know what good writing looks like and must have something to say about something. As you teach, you collect those gems that you consider your “go to” passages, lessons, activities that always seem to resonate with the students. Years ago, I found an interesting piece by Paul Auster entitled “Why Write?” This selection is brief and interesting, and it can lead to many first discussions or assignments as you begin to discover your students. No matter what objective I wanted my students to accomplish, this little essay did its job. “Why Write?” became a gem of mine.
The following is section 5 from Auster’s essay printed in The New Yorker’s final edition of 1995.
I was eight years old. At that moment in my life, nothing was more important to me than baseball. My team was the New York Giants, and I followed the doings of these men in the black and orange caps with all the devotion of a true believer. Even now, remembering that team – which no longer exists – I can reel off the names of nearly every player on the roster. Alvin Dark, Whitey Lockman, Don Mueller, Johnny Antonelli, Monte Irvin, Hoyt Welhelm. But none was greater, none more perfect nor more deserving of worship than Willie Mays, the incandescent Say Hey kid.
That spring, I was taken to my first big league game. Friends of my parents had box seats at the Polo Grounds, and one April night a group of us went to watch the Giants play the Milwaukee Braves. I don’t know who won, I can’t recall a single detail of the game, but I do remember that after the game was over my parents and their friends sat talking in their seats until all the other spectators had left. It got so late that we had to walk across the diamond and leave by the center-field exit, which was the only one still open. As it happened, that exit was right below the players’ locker rooms.
Just as we approached the wall, I caught sight of Willie Mays. There was no question about who it was. It was Willie Mays, already out of uniform and standing there in his street clothes not ten feet away from me. I managed to keep my legs moving in his direction and then, mustering every ounce of my courage, I forced some words out of my mouth, “Mr. Mays,” I said, “could I please have your autograph?”
He had to have been all of twenty-four years old, but I couldn’t bring myself to pronounce his first name.
His response to my question was brusque but amicable. “Sure, kid, sure,” he said. “You got a pencil?” He was so full of life, I remember, so full of youthful energy, that he kept bouncing up and down as he spoke.
I didn’t have a pencil, so I asked my father if I could borrow his. He didn’t have one either. Nor did my mother. Nor, as it turned out did any of the other grownups.
The great Willie Mays stood there watching in silence. When it became clear that no one in the group had anything to write with, he turned to me and shrugged, “Sorry, kid,” he said. “Ain’t got no pencil, can’t give no autograph.” And then he walked out of the ballpark into the night.
I didn’t want to cry, but tears started falling down my cheeks, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. Even worse, I cried all the way home in the car. Yes, I was crushed with disappointment, but I was also revolted at myself for not being able to control those tears. I wasn’t a baby. I was eight years old, and big kids weren’t supposed to cry over things like that. Not only did I not have Willie Mays’s autograph, I didn’t have anything else, either. Life had put me to the test, and in all respects, I had found myself wanting.
After that night, I started carrying a pencil with me wherever I went. It became a habit of mine never to leave the house without making sure I had a pencil in my pocket. It’s not that I had any particular plans for that pencil, but I didn’t want to be unprepared. I had been caught empty-handed once, and I wasn’t about to let it happen again.
If nothing else, the years have taught me this: if there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it. As I like to tell my children, that’s how I became a writer.
Before beginning a discussion of text, have your students number the paragraphs if that task hasn’t already been completed. Then during the discussion, the speaker has a way to refer to the mentioned passage.
In your preparation for the lesson, choose the skills or ideas that you want your students to learn and have a plan to get them there. Although a discussion of a text can rabbit-trail in many directions, as the instructor/facilitator, you need to be ready to lead them with a purpose. The following are examples of ideas I wanted my students to take away from this passage, you may think of so many more!
To understand a writer, the reader should make a connection with him/her, however, students tend to focus on those things that are foreign to them. To help my students to grasp this concept, I told them to circle any word/phrase/idea that was unfamiliar. They typically began with names, the players listed in the first paragraph, anything having to do with baseball, then unfamiliar vocabulary such as brusque in paragraph 5. They may use this as their argument for why they cannot find common ground with this writer or make any connection to the text. Move the discussion to the things that they like, music, sports, film – anything with celebrities to idolize. They will soon realize that there is a familiar concept here: the excitement of meeting a celebrity that you idolize. Huzzah! Connection made. This connection may grow into empathy for 8-year-old Auster lamenting the autograph he could have had… if only. Conversely, when it is time for your students to write, encourage them to think of placing the details of a new event or idea within a familiar frame. Good writers never need to say, “you had to be there”; a good writer takes you there. Writing prompt: Using the familiar frame of a journey, describe a journey you have recently experienced – remember it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end!
One text can have various levels of meaning. I approach this concept in different ways depending upon the current ability of the students. For my AP students, we may discuss this concept as the supposed thesis and the actual thesis. For my freshmen, we may discuss “what the piece is about” and “what the piece is REALLY about.” Other times we may simply discuss the thing and the other thing. In Auster’s text, what is the thing, the supposed thesis, what the piece is about? If the students have been conditioned to find the thesis in the position of the final sentence in the opening paragraph, then they will quickly find the thing: the hero-worship of ball-player-celebrity Willie Mays. But is that what the text is really about? As you encourage the discussion as a class or in partners or in groups, you will find some of them heading to the idea that Auster is sharing his story of how he became a writer (par. 10) or why he is always prepared. Writing prompt: Tell a story about something that happened to you with a lesson that could apply to anyone.
Repetition with a purpose is a powerful rhetorical tool. Auster’s text opens with the statement, “I was eight years old.” Very declarative, matter-of-fact, attention given to the audience in the fact that we all can relate to being eight years old. He immediately takes us back to a time in which the immediate is paramount, and one simple event can send us into convulsions of anguish. We get it. We understand the childish idolatry of a celebrity. Age teaches us that celebrities are merely human beings, just like us. In paragraph 8 Auster repeats the clause, “I was eight years old,” but it’s different this time. The first time, we understand that he is differentiating himself from adults, he was only eight. Later when struggling to fight the tears of frustration and loss, he is desperate to differentiate himself from babies: he was a “big kid” and should not cry over such silly, childish things! They may have been the identical words, but the meaning is very different. Writing challenge with an open prompt: write a simple clause. Use that clause as the first sentence in your essay, then again later in an essay with a very different meaning.
Failure can be a more powerful, life-altering experience than success. Depending upon your group of students, this may be the only lesson needed from this text. Too often our students see failure as something that is horrible instead of viewing it as a springboard to something new. Even the most literal students seem to be able to make the inference that Auster’s failure to get the Mays autograph led to his carrying a pencil always, which in turn, helped him on his way to becoming a writer. Journal entry or quick write: share a failure you experienced and explain what you learned from it.
Titles have significance…usually. From time to time an editor will throw a title on a text simply from the necessity of having one, but when a writer chooses a title for a text that he has written, he has a reason for it. Why is the title “Why Write?” rather than “Why I Write?” What is the difference in meaning? If you have been discussing several aspects of this text, the students should be running away with ideas here, if not, you may lead them with yours. With advanced students, I have paired this text with two essays entitled, “Why I Write?” by George Orwell and Joan Didion. Adding paired texts gives more opportunity for making connections, drawing conclusions, and having thoughts that prompt writing. Writing prompt 1: Explain the significance of the title of the essay. Writing prompt 2: Compare/contrast Auster’s essay to either Didion’s or Orwell’s essay. Be sure to address the similarities/differences in the titles and the significance of such.
Be prepared! Recently I was reading Twyla Tharp’s 2003 book, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, and in chapter 2, “Rituals of Preparation” she mentions this very essay by Paul Auster. She uses it to encourage her readers to be ready to be creative: “What is your pencil” she writes, “What is the one tool that feeds your creativity and is so essential that without it you feel naked and unprepared?… Pick your ‘pencil’ and don’t leave home without it” (Tharp, 2003, 30). What a wonderful way to begin the school year – encouraging your students to be prepared to learn, to read, to write, to think every day. Quick write or journal entry: Choose your “pencil.” What is the tool you need every day to be ready to be an excellent, productive learner?
READ, THINK, WRITE… then we talk. If I had a nickel for every time I have given this instruction to my students in the past twenty-some years, I could retire already. Get them reading, thinking, writing, and discussing… our little gems can get that started!
Auster, Paul. (1995) Why Write? The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/12/25/why-write.
Tharp, Twila. (2003) The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.